Conservatives: Stop Crying Wolf On Tech Bias Or No One Will Ever Take You Seriously

from the this-is-not-the-bias-you-are-looking-for dept

In an article picked up by Drudge Report and then tweeted by President Donald Trump himself, PJ Media editor Paula Bolyard makes the shocking claim that Google deliberately manipulates its search results to favor left-wing views and undermine the President.

In supporting this allegation, she goes to Google and looks through the first hundred listings on the search engine results page. Therein, she finds that 96 percent of results for "Trump" are from liberal media outlets. Bolyard remarks:

I was not prepared for the blatant prioritization of left-leaning and anti-Trump media outlets. Looking at the first page of search results, I discovered that CNN was the big winner, scoring two of the first ten results. Other left-leaning sites that appeared on the first page were CBS, The Atlantic, CNBC, The New Yorker, Politico, Reuters, and USA Today

She adds that other than Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, traditional right-leaning outlets didn't make the cut:

PJ Media did not appear in the first 100 results, nor did National Review, The Weekly Standard, Breitbart, The Blaze, The Daily Wire, Hot Air, Townhall, Red State, or any other conservative-leaning sites except the two listed above.

Aha! A big tech company caught red handed pushing its progressive agenda. Well...not so fast. Rather than uncovering compelling evidence of bias, this article's author and its promoters merely reveal their ignorance of how search engines work.

First, the author seems to conflate Google Search and Google News, two products which use different algorithms and serve different functions. Google News is a searchable news aggregator and app (with some overt editorial functions), whereas Google Search tries to give users the most useful and relevant information in response to a query.

In order to determine what constitutes a relevant and useful result, search engines use complex algorithms to rank the quality of different pages based on a variety of signals such as keywords, authoritativeness, freshness or site architecture. A big part of this quality determination is based on outside links to a site – an idea going back to Larry Page and Sergey Brin's work at Stanford in the late 1990s that culminated in the creation of the PageRank algorithm.

Page and Brin realized that incoming links to a site served as a proxy for quality markers like authoritativeness, trustworthiness and popularity. Today, Google Search is much more complex, utilizing complex machine-learning functions like RankBrain and an evolving set of algorithms with names like Hummingbird, Panda, Penguin and Pigeon. However, incoming links are still a key factor. Additionally, while Google uses manual quality raters to test new algorithm changes, they do not use them on live search results.

Google News' approach to ranking results is also driven by algorithms that use a number of the same signals (you can get an idea from their patent), with a couple exceptions where manual input is used for editorial features, major events, and cross-over results from Google Search for particular topics.

With this in mind, it should be no great surprise that outlets like the New York Times, CNN, and Washington Post trounce outlets like PJ Media, National Review, and the Weekly Standard in organic search. The sites in the latter group don't have metrics that support them rising to the top of the search algorithm. Of course, PJ Media found Fox and WSJ weren't affected by this "bias" because their numbers are actually comparable to the former group of "left-wing" outlets (see below).

(Data from Alexa.com)

This approach to ranking quality isn't just a Google thing. If you look at competitors like DuckDuckGo or Bing (which PJ Media didn't seem to bother doing), you're going to see pretty similar results. Maybe this says something about the media landscape. But it's not a good reason to storm Mountain View with pitchforks.

PJ Media's conspiracy-mongering is based on an avoidable misunderstanding that could throw gasoline on the techlash and lead to policies that chill American innovation (although at least for now, conservatives still think a Fairness Doctrine for the Internet is a dumb idea).

It's worth saying that libertarians and conservatives aren't totally unreasonable in wanting to investigate whether they're getting fair treatment by tech companies. After all, Silicon Valley is a very liberal place that doesn't always reflect their norms or values (I also say this as someone with generally right-leaning views who has worked for organizations like the Cato Institute and R Street). That being said, if you're going to make an allegation that there's a big conspiracy, you should do your due diligence. This means taking time to understand the underlying technology before jumping to conclusions.

On Google's part, given all of the tensions around bias lately, they would probably be wise to be more transparent about how their news algorithm works and do more proactive outreach to avoid future misunderstandings.

Zach Graves is Head of Policy for Lincoln Network

Filed Under: algorithms, bias, content moderation, donald trump, free speech, google news, journalism, news, search
Companies: google


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  1. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 29 Aug 2018 @ 7:06am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    I can’t help but notice that you advertise your sexual preferences without anyone asking about them.

    You made this about sexual identity, at least in part, when you mentioned “the days of ‘so called’ diversity of ethnicity and sexual orientation”. You wanted this discussion; here I am to deliver it. And I mention my sexual identity because I want you to know you are speaking to an out queer person whose life can, and likely will, be affected by such issues.

    I don’t know why anyone else would care about your personal and private choices.

    Anti-LGBT discrimination is still a thing. An employer would never need to know what I do in my bedroom if they want to punish me for being openly queer. And enough religious evangelists of numerous sects have called for the societal shunning (at best) of LGBT people that I know religious-backed bigotry still exists.

    maybe I’m just an insensitive bigoted homophobe

    You have yet to prove otherwise.

    When you use the word “deserve”, you are speaking to a subjective standard. Fully Inclusive Diversity of opinion, in the form of Free Speech, is an objective standard, which is what makes it so powerful. It is not subject to individual opinions, it includes all opinions.

    • “I believe Black Americans should not be discriminated against.”
    • “I believe Black Americans should be bussed to a desert that is set to be nuked.”

    If we go by your objective standard, the second opinion should be just as “deserving” of acceptance and respect as the first. You can hopefully see why a great many people would consider that situation to be unacceptable.

    Americans can “get out of” their own sphere of opinions, that is one of our basic tenants. That is why Freedom of Speech is so important, it is not subjective, it is objective.

    The only objective notion of “freedom of speech” is “the government cannot exercise prior restraint against most of your speech”. (Try publishing classified information after telling the government you plan to do it, see how long you stay out of court.) Everything else is a subjective standard that differs from person to person; in the “two opinions” example above, anyone who holds the second opinion would consider it “free speech”, while people who disagree with that opinion would likely call it “hate speech” and want the people who hold that opinion to fuck off.

    The First Amendment guarantees a person the right to speak their mind without government interference. It does not entitle them to an audience, a platform, and unquestioned acceptance/respect for their speech. Call it “bias” or “political correctness” if you wish; I call it “reality”.

    Techdirt markets their product by claiming there is no subjective truth, there is only objective truth, their truth

    [citation needed]

    Anyone who steps outside of their truth is either mocked or censored.

    You can disagree with Techdirt “orthodoxy” and the opinions of commenters without being a smug, disingenuously polite asshole who claims they are being censored for their politics and not for being an asshole. (Your “aw shucks, golly gee” nice guy act does you no favors here.) People here flag you because you have proven yourself to be a troll; you will continue to be flagged for that reason until you decide to stop being one.

    People are flawed, and subjective standards should always be suspect.

    I guess that means I can hold in suspicion Shiva Ayyadurai’s claim of having invented email, then, given how his standard for that claim is, at best, subjective.

    Censoring is just short sighted and self defeating. Sooner or later the flawed individuals who wield the power of censorship will drift into tyranny and oppression. Censoring others will eventually backfire.

    And if I were calling for censoring others, you might have a point. At the dirt worst, though, I am calling for platforms with an ounce of moral and ethical integrity to stop letting racists, homophobes, and other bigots onto those platforms. The bigots can go make their own platform if they want to be heard badly enough; they are not legally, morally, or ethically entitled to use the platforms of others.


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